A pediatric surgeon, Susan Adelman has also been an editor, a president of many medical organizations, a painter, sculptor, jeweler, and now an author. After extensive travel – including many trips to the Middle East and India – she wrote the biography of a dear friend of hers and her law professor husband. This is Ram Jethmalani, a legendary lawyer, member of the Indian parliament, former law minister, writer, mediator of the Kashmir dispute and law teacher. Adelman’s husband called him the greatest lawyer in the English language in the world.
Her second book evolved out of her friendship with a Chaldean grandmother who she met while performing a series of operations on her nephew from Iraq. This became a book about Aramaic, those who still speak it today – Chaldeans, Assyrians and Kurdish Jews – and the impending doom of the Christians in the Middle East because of ISIS and related groups. At present, Adelman is working on a book about the deep connections between Jews, Israelis and India – linguistic, cultural, and historic – and their linkage through Zoroastrianism.
Watch the interview with Dr. Adelman and read the following Q&A:
Q: What is the book After Saturday, Comes Sunday about, and what inspired you to write it?
A: The book tells the story of the Aramaic language and the last living people to still speak it, the Chaldeans, the Assyrians, and the Kurdish Jews. It then turns to the challenges the Christians have had, and still have, in the Middle East and what we need to do to help them if they ever are going to maintain Aramaic as a living language.
Q: What did you discover throughout the process of writing this book, particularly in regards to the relationship between the Jews and Chaldeans?
A: I already knew a great deal about the closeness between the Jews and Chaldeans in the old country, because I learned much from the Karim and Norma Hakim family over the last forty years, but of course my research added much more to the picture.
Q: You wrote on page 45, “The greatest Jewish community of the ancient world was in Babylonia.” Tell us about that history, and how, little by little, it became extinct in Iraq.
A: The Jews first were brought to Assyria by the Assyrians in 722 BCE and next by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. In each of these two exiles, thousands of Jews were deported to Assyria (probably Nineveh Province), then Babylon. After the great temple was destroyed in Jerusalem in 70 CE, Jews escaped in all directions, many of them to join their countrymen in Iraq. For hundreds of years, 90% of all Jews in the world lived in the Middle East, especially in Iraq, under Muslim rule. This was a highly organized community, a center of learning, and the place where all the most important Jewish literature was compiled. Baghdad was one third Jewish up to the Second World War. That war, and the persecutions that took place in Iraq after the formation of the State of Israel, caused the Jews to flee to Israel.
Q: What are the differences between the Aramaic spoken by the Jewish people and that spoken by Chaldeans and Assyrians?
A: Aramaic is an ancient language, perhaps dating back to 1000 BCE, and over time it has undergone many changes, evolved, spread to many countries and communities, developed new dialects and in some places undergone changes that created a new language. Several different scripts even evolved. Different communities – Jewish, Christian and Muslim, Samarians, Mandaeans – developed their own variations, some of which are mutually intelligible and some not. In some towns the Christians and Jews could understand each other and converse. In other towns, even towns that were not large, the differences were so great between, say Syriac and Jewish Aramaic, that they could not understand each other. The grammar stays the same in all of them, and they share this grammar with Hebrew and, to some extent, with Arabic. I speak Hebrew and some Arabic, and this enables me to understand some Chaldean, but I suspect I am largely relying on the Arabic that is mixed into it.
Q: After Saturday, Comes Sunday was your second book, and it’s very well researched. So is your first book Rebel: A Biography of Ram Jethmalani. What challenges did you face writing your books, given that your career was previously dedicated to the medical field?
A: The first book drew heavily on the many trips we have made to India and the over 40- year close friendship we have had with Ram Jethmalani. I had heard many of his stories in real time, and what I had to do was research the details, the background and the legal cases. The next book drew on the over 40-year friendship I have had with Norma Hakim and her family, and it also drew on my many trips to Israel plus my previous knowledge of Jewish history. What I had to do, again, was to research all our respective histories, the differences between the different communities, the important people, and the major events.
Q: What message do you want your readers to take from your book?
A: In the last chapter I go through the needs of the Chaldean community if they want to settle again in their historic villages in Iraq, speak their language and keep their culture alive. To do that, they need help from a superpower, and that power must be us. They have done a great deal of work in putting together their issues and needs; now we need to follow their lead.
Q: Based on your research and observation, your intimate relationship with the Chaldean community, and your interest in world affairs, what future do you see for the Christians in the Middle East?
A: While I know that some of my Chaldean friends say that all that needs to be done is to turn out the lights, I am more hopeful. I even am hopeful as I watch what has happened to the poor Maronites in Lebanon. I even maintain hope when I see how the Kurds have been betrayed, and how they see themselves as competing with the Chaldeans for the same land. I think it will take a massive effort to reestablish a Chaldean community back in Iraq, and I think the diaspora will have to step up in an effective way. Remember though, the Jews did it. In the end it may be hard to attract a lot of people to villages, but if there are places to go to, some may retire there, young people may visit, even stay, educational centers may be built, and tourism may develop.
Q: What future do you see for the Aramaic language?
A: The language lives on in the Jewish Babylonian Talmud, many Jewish prayers and in the Jewish religious schools all over the world. I am pleased to see that the Chaldean churches are getting interested in teaching Chaldean and that there are websites and courses in Aramaic available now. If Chaldeans and Assyrians continue to push this education, they plus the Jews can keep their respective versions of Aramaic alive. Remember, Hebrew almost died as a spoken language until the State of Israel was recreated. Then the language was revived, words added from Arabic, English, French, German and Russian, and the grammar modernized. If the Chaldeans could keep their community intact, they can do the same thing.
Q: Are you currently writing a book, and if so, what is it about?
A: Yes, drawing from my experience writing about India and about the Middle East, I am writing about what draws so many Israelis, and Jews in general, to India. What are the deep and historic connections between us? Do they go through Iran? Yes. How are our Jewish, Hindi and Buddhist religions connected through the historic religion of Iran, Zoroastrianism?